“Do the cheesy touristy things.” That was one of the pieces of advice I got before embarking on this trip and the person that gave it specifically mentioned the Taj Mahal. It’s funny because in real life, doing the touristy things would be last on our priority list. But if you’re doing a broad world survey like we are, they are unavoidable. You cannot go to India on an exploratory mission and not visit its most famous landmark. And Nellu loves a good UNESCO World Heritage site so off we went…
We took the early morning express train to Agra from Delhi. The trip took just under 2 hours. (A word of advice to future travelers: all the touts know this is a big tourist route. There is a scam where a man approaches you at the train station and tells you that your e-ticket for the train is not valid. The guy has you run you around the station looking for a place where you can get a boarding pass so you miss the train and take their high cost taxi to Agra. One of these guys did approach us the morning we got on the train and started to mumble something about just having an internet ticket. But our Delhi family had warned us and we got on the train and into our assigned seats. The conductor comes around to check tickets once the train has departed. We booked our tickets online through cleartrip.com per the advice of one of my new favorite sites seat61.com. It was wonderful and easy!)
We arrived at the gate of the Taj Mahal just before 9am after wandering around for a few minutes trying to find the entrance. The Taj is quite funny the way it’s tucked away behind a wall inside the crowded city of Agra. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d certainly not guess. We entered from the South Gate, which is practically hidden.
But once you find it, the Taj Mahal does not disappoint! We walked through the gate to find the white marble structure practically glowing on its pedestal framed by a blue, blue sky and postcard perfect clouds. We read the chief architect of the Taj actually designed it so that there would be nothing but sky behind it. It looked so perfect, it looked fake. We keep joking that all of our pictures look like we’re standing in front of a green screen rather than the real thing.
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum that is the Taj for his wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their 14th child (I know!). We spent a good part of the morning just wandering around marveling at its beauty. We couldn’t stay for the golden hour but I can imagine pictures taken at this time would be breathtaking.
Our one set back: Little Jimmy McMillian was denied entry into the Taj Mahal as he was deemed a security threat. I tried to explain to the guards they could fully check him out by pulling off his head and hands but they were unconvinced. To be fair, the day we went to the Taj Mahal, the Delhi High Court was hit with a briefcase bomb that killed 11 people. It’s quite reasonable to think that guards are wary of unknowns like Little Jimmy. But Nellu was able to get a shot of Little Jimmy with the Taj from the perch at Agra Fort down the river. (Check out all the Misadventures of Little Jimmy here.)
Agra Fort is truly another gem of the city. It’s about 2km from the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. Nellu and I walked there even though every 50 feet or so drivers of all kind – auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and even camel drawn carts – approached us. We also managed to avoid the persistent tour guides hovering at the fort entrance – one in particular who was sure we’d miss out if we didn’t hire him. Emperor Shah Jahan refurbished Agra Fort replacing much of the red sandstone with white marble. The complex also has intricate water fountains running through it. (You know I’m a sucker for a good water way). It was renovated as a palace but later became a prison for the Emperor when his son overthrew his rule.
There are a few more things to do in Agra including a visit to what people call the baby Taj but Nellu and I skipped on the last. We got some good food at rooftop restaurant with views of the top of the Taj Mahal, watched monkeys jump from building to building, and hopped on the evening train back to our Delhi home.